Jacques Cartier : The Greatest Voyager Of 1500s

Jacques Cartier : The Greatest Voyager Of 1500s 1

Jacques Cartier occupies an important place in the history of Canada. He was a French- Breton Mariner and explorer who laid claims for land in the New World for France. He was officially the first European explorer to clamber up the Gulf of  St. Lawrence Valley and map this part of America. The sketched maps of his explorations left a profound impact on the 16th-century cartography.

During the last decade of the 15th and 16th centuries, the Rennaissance and the dreams of finding unfathomable riches and gold in the east ignited a spirit of curiosity and adventure for the power-driven Europeans to explore the world outside. Then, Cartier appears in the picture and is commissioned by Francis I, to take a voyage into the New World and retrace the route taken by Verezano several years earlier, to find a passage to Asia.

He soon undertakes three voyages to the newly discovered valley and claims land for what is now Canada for France. In addition to his explorations at St. Lawrence Valley, He is credited with giving Canada its name.

Who was Jacques Cartier?

Jacques Cartier

Théophile Hamel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jacques Cartier was born on December 31, 1494, to French-Breton Jamet Cartier and Geseline Beaudoin in Saint-Malo, Brittany, France. Not much is known about his life before the voyage. But, he certainly had some experience in the art of navigation, which earned him the title of ‘Maistre Pilote.’

His maritime experience in Spain, Brazil, and Newfoundland was sufficient enough to earn him the credence of Francis I and Bishop Jean Le Veneur, the admiral of France. He was soon chosen to undertake a voyage to the New World to find a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean in the area around Newfoundland.

1st Voyage to Canada, 1534

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Jacques Cartier was made the leader of the expedition, which consisted of two ships and 61 men. The boat left the port of St. Malo on April 20, 1534. He and his ships entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence by Straits of Belle Isle and traveled south to the coast of the Magdalen Islands. Three days later, the crew reached the Prince Edward Islands and New Brunswick.

Then, they navigated towards the west, crossing Chaleur Bay and reaching Gaspe Bay. Here, they encountered the Iroquois Indigenous people from the region of Stadacona (Present-day Quebec).  He took a vast territory at Gaspe Bay by erecting a cross engraved with the words ‘Vive le Roy de France.’ Later, this became the subject of the most significant Cartier commemoration.

It was also believed that, during this encounter, the first bartering between the Amerindians and the Europeans took place. When the time came for departure, Cartier abducted two sons of Chief Donnacona of Stadacona, Damagaya and Taignoagny. From Gaspe, the fleet headed north, exploring much of the Anticosti Island.

From there, the passage home was direct, and the fleet returned to St. Malo on September 5, after a voyage of four and a half months. On returning, Cartier gave the first official report of the Gulf of Lawrence, thus helping to open up new territory to fur trade and fisheries.


In addition to his explorations at St. Lawrence Valley, Jacques Cartier is credited with giving Canada its name. The word comes from Iroquois-Huron language ‘Kanata’ which means ‘village’ or ‘settlements.’ Cartier used this word to refer to all the areas that he had explored.

2nd Voyage to Canada, 1535

In mid-May 16, 1535, Jacques Cartier, with a crew of 110 men, along with sons of Donnacona, left Saint-Malo boarding three ships – The Great Hermine, Petite Hermine, and Emerillion. The fleets anchored at the site of lle d’ Orleans. He and his crew entered the small bay on the coast opposite Anticosti Island, which he named for St. Lawrence.

The two natives explained to Cartier that the Great River was the river of Hochelagans and the way to Canada. The fleet soon reached the mouth of the Saguenay River, but Cartier realized that the river was not the route to the Northway passage as it flowed from the northern direction.

They continued up the Great River and encountered the countrymen of Domagaya and Taignoagny. The sons introduced Cartier to the people of Stadacona (Quebec), and Donnacona himself came aboard the Grande Hermine to greet the Captain. Following the Stonaconas upstream, they reached their settlement, which would one day become the Quebec City. Cartier soon found a sanctuary for his crew and ships at the intersection of Loiret and St. Charles River, at St. Croix (Today’s St. Charles River)

Cartier maintained good relations with the Laurentian Indians during this period. Because of this, he familiarized himself with the customs and religion of the Indians and wrote down a vocabulary. He also gained notions of the fabled kingdom of Saguenay, which nourished his hopes that he might someday be able to go there.

The Stadaconas were not pleased with Cartier’s enthusiasm for a trip to Hochelaga (Montreal Island). With the flood of European goods penetrating the Indian soil, the Indians surveyed that their indigenous trade techniques were no match against the European rivals. The economic motives of the Europeans were comprehended, and the Amerindians needed to initiate a way to keep their opponents out of the profitable trade relationship.

Moreover, Hochelagans reigned supreme among the inhabitants of the St. Lawrence Valley. Donnacona wanted to keep the advantage of the trade with French, to escape Hochelaga hegemony.

Despite the threats from the Amerindians, Cartier went on aboard with Emerillion on September 7. During his visit to Hochelaga, Jacques Cartier met the chief of the settlement and several of his subjects. He got the impression that there was gold beyond the Lachine rapids. He vowed to return to explore.

Upon returning from Hochelaga in mid- October, the crew confronted the rigors of the harsh Canadian climate. They were exposed for the first time to Canadian winter. Owing to the lack of Vitamin C in their diet, a disease known as scurvy, unknown to the Europeans at that time, decimated the crew. However, Donnacona helped them by giving them the indigenous medicine called Annedda, a white cedar tea. It weakened the bout off with scurvy and saved the rest of the crew.


Jacques Cartier : The Greatest Voyager Of 1500s 4

Canada Post Office, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Cartier’s subordinates soon built a fort, given their now uneasy relationship with the Stadacodians. Their relationship had been affected by his trip to Hochelaga.

The first European Building was constructed in St. Lawrence Valley.

Given the hostile attitude of the Stadaconians, Cartier had his fort strengthened. Their friendly relations soon ended and it turned into mistrust and suspicion. Since the route to Asia was not found, Cartier decided to return to France. On his return, he captured several Indians, including Chief Donnacona, and took them to France as captives. The Stadaconians never saw their chief again.

3rd Voyage to Canada, 1541

Wars in Europe led to a delay for the next voyage of Jacques Cartier. However, in June 1538, the Treaty of Nice ended the war. Francis, I was still intrigued and enchanted by the tales of the riches in the kingdom of Saguenay and he still had another expedition in mind. Cartier was commissioned for the next trip to Canada, but he was made subordinate to Jean Francois de la Roberval, who was expected to head the next vast colonization expedition.

France adopted a new purpose for this next expedition – lead the people to the knowledge of God. But basically, it was to repeat and extend the exploration of the Second Voyage. They were still searching for the fabled kingdom of Saguenay, which sounded promising.

Meanwhile, Cartier departed from St. Malo with five vessels, as Roberval was not ready to leave. The fleet passed Sainte- Croix on August 23, 1541. He established himself at Cape Rouge and built new fortifications. This settlement came to be known as Charlesbourg- Royal. Once settled, he continued the exploration of this area and searched the route to Saguenay.


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Georges Barreau, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


After his second journey to Hochelaga, Cartier lost faith for the search of Saguenay because the route beyond Lachine rapids was long and arduous. This bit of crippling news, coupled with the discovery of what he believed to be gold and diamonds in the routes of Cap-Rouge, made him hurry back to France.

At the en route, Cartier encountered Roberval. He ordered him to return, but Cartier was anxious to convert his cargo into cash, and he abandoned Roberval and left for France. Meanwhile, Roberval had to spend a horrendous winter at the site of this navigator’s settlement and had to repatriate the tiny colony to France. The third voyage intended for colonization and exploration proved a failure.

Records of the third voyage end here. There is hardly any information about what happened after Cartier’s return from Hochelaga. But hostilities with the Native Indians seemed to have intensified officially during the 3rd voyage. When the French returned to the St. Lawrence Valley at the beginning of the 17th century, they met only nomads.

The tribes of Stadacona and Hochelaga had been wiped out. Various historians have interpreted the reason behind their disappearance – warfare, migration, and the formation of strong leagues in the valley.

Cartier arrived at Saint-Malo, Brittany, in September 1542 after 17 months of voyage. The gold and diamonds that he believed he had discovered from Cap-Rouge were iron pyrite and quartz. This was the last official expedition that Cartier took part in.

Later Life

It is said that Jacques Cartier spends his last phase of life living a simple and peaceful existence. He retired from navigation and took part in public activities. He died at the age of 66 at his estate at Limoilou near Saint-Malo. Historians hold the view that the plague, which had raged Europe, reached St. Malo at the beginning of summer, and it was believed that Cartier succumbed to it.

Jacques Cartier’s place in history

Although the three expeditions turned out to be a failure, Jacques Cartier’s voyage to New France still represents an essential step in French colonization of the New World and had a definite influence on the 16th century’s ‘Age of Discovery.’ His explorations upriver as far as the Island of Montreal, added significantly to European geographical knowledge of the North American region.

Cartier also opened the doors, stimulating the fish industry and the fur trade by expanding territorial limits. Cartier’s influence on the 16th-century cartography was considerable. He had carefully mapped the interiors of the St. Lawrence Valley. He drew maps of his voyages but did not survive to the present day.

Two letters from Cartier’s great-nephew in 1587 proved that his sketch maps existed. However, his plans were adopted from the second half of the 16th Century, which shows similar routes that he had followed. Jean Rotz drafted the first map to show affinity with the Cartier tradition on a 1542 map. Another chart in the Portuguese- Cartier tradition shows the 1st and 2nd voyages of him.

Despite the failure of the voyage to Canada, which intended for exploration and colonization, Jacques Cartier’s rightful place in Canadian history should not be diminished. He was the first European to visit the Canadian lands and also the first to capitalize on the potential for further exploration in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Although Cartier’s gold and diamonds were regarded as ‘Fools Gold,’ subsequent explorers who followed his footsteps found gold in the land. Jacques Cartier did not live to see the fame and success that his voyages later brought his name. That, the future generations would credit him with the founding of a new colony and the person who gave the country its name ‘Canada.’

Three and a half centuries after Cartier last saw the North American shore, he had earned his name in history, and in particular, Canada. People across Quebec also named him as the father of New France. Citizens of Montreal even unveiled a monument honoring the great explorers for their heroic deeds. And Cartier was one of them.


Jacques Cartier bridge

Photo by Eva Blue on Unsplash


The Jacques Cartier bridge in Montreal was named after Jacques Cartier, to commemorate his first voyage up to Saint. Lawrence, 400 years earlier.

Canada sure has one of the most interesting history in the world. This article about Jacques Cartier is a pure example. Find out more about the history of Canada by clicking here.

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